Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.” Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants. Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land? Can they be determined? If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all? Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Is the river of Egypt the Nile? Or is it a seasonal Wadi? The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended. Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of the Euphrates only and not of the river of Egypt.

It seems, then, as if this “river” is the Wadi mentioned in Num. 34:5, Josh. 15:4 and 47, and 1 Ki. 8:65, and is what is known as the Wadi el-Arabah,1 which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, circumscribing the area known as the Negev (south).2 So if we take the southern part of the land to be the Wadi el-Arabah, and the northern part to be the Euphrates, we must then ask whether this land area has ever been truly inherited by Israel at any time in its history, and if it is to be inherited in the future.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, supercessionists believe that the promise of inheritance has already been fulfilled:

Eventually, under Solomon, Israel claimed the land from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just as the Lord had promised originally to Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).3

If it is indeed the case that Genesis 15:18-21 was fulfilled in Israel’s past then is there anything more to be said? Hasn’t that oath of God been satisfied? There are problems with such a view.

One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is. Abraham gets called away from his homeland with the promise of a land in which he will remain a sojourner all his life. The nation that springs from him spends four hundred years out of the land in Egypt. When they return, they quickly apostasize and begin to splinter into factions. When they do finally “inherit” the whole piece of real estate in the days of David and only fully with Solomon (a mere eighty years maximum), it all ends with an unceremonious division of the nation and the land amid gradual declension until the descendants of Abraham are shipped off as captives back to pagan Mesopotamia in shame!

In the history of nations this would be hardly worth a mention, let alone an honorable one. If the hope of the land covenant was extinguished so early, as Robertson and many other covenant theologians think, the fulfilling of God’s unilateral promise to Abram leaves little grounds for any tangible hope for Israel. It is one of the main purposes of the present book to show that this way of telling Israel’s story is fatally wrong.

Returning to the question of the land’s dimensions, Ronald B. Allen says that the land promise includes parts of ancient Aram as well as Canaan. He writes,

Although the period of conquest and the later expansions under Saul, David and Solomon began a fulfillment of the extent of the promises, the pattern was still only a partial fulfillment.

Citing Charles L. Feinberg, Allen believes the land promised in Genesis 15 would range over 300,000 square miles.4 This is considerably bigger than the land occupied at present by the nation of Israel. If Feinberg’s estimate is right, God would still have covenantal obligations in regard to the land coverage itself, never mind the promises of perpetuity included in the covenant.

As we have seen, it is an act of purely arbitrary interpretation to divide the seed promise from the land promise in this crucial chapter of Scripture. As far as the biblical history has come to this point, there is no reason to create such a cleavage in our understanding of the narrative. We must suspend judgment on what we think we know and allow the story to unfold at its own pace, marking carefully the outworking of God’s covenants as they come into view and drive the teleological and eschatological picture as it is steadily forming.5

Genesis 16 contains the story of the birth of Ishmael. Ishmael was born after Abram had been in the land for ten years (16:3). He was not the son of Sarai but of her handmaiden Hagar. Like Adam many centuries before Abram had listened to his wife in contradiction to the word of God. The pragmatic solution which Sarai devised is still being felt by us today. This ought to remind us how placing our reasoning above the clear statements of God is always dangerous. It has been the cause of many theological errors. Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning. Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.


1 Also known as Wadi el- Arish

2 See David M. Fleming, “Wadi,” in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 951

3 O. Palmer Robertson, Understanding the Land of the Bible, 9. It is not uncommon to find supercessionist author’s skipping the vital details of Genesis 15:8-21 in their argumentation. See also Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 423-424. An example of this is Sam Storms’ book, Kingdom Come.

4 Ronald B. Allen, “The Land of Israel,” in Israel: The Land and the People, H. Wayne House, General editor, 24

5 To cite John H. Sailhamer, “We must keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” (The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 154)

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There are 14 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Paul, thanks for this.

I never considered the anticlimax problem before... and it is a problem. Strikes me as being sort of like the 1812 Overture suddenly collapsing into a whimpering oboe solo just as the cannons should be firing.

Leads me to believe the cannons are yet to come.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes Aaron, your illustration hits home

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture


One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is. 

Another such difficulty is that the land promise is repeated in the prophets for centuries after the time of Solomon. 

TylerR's picture


Yes, that is a bit of a sticking point . . . !

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, you said it well:

Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning. Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.

And Larry, your point is well-taken:

Another such difficulty is that the land promise is repeated in the prophets for centuries after the time of Solomon. 

You would think this alone would refute those who reject the fulfillment of God's promises as originally understood.  Our God is doggedly and relentlessly faithful, even if the people with Whom He deals are not!

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

Larry, you are quite right to say that the obvious repetition of the promises throughout OT history is fatal to the arguments of those who wish it was all fulfilled in Joshua's or Solomon's time.  What I am doing here is just looking at "where we're at" and what is being said in context.

Ed, I am convinced that God is not much of a spiritualizer

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

T Howard's picture

So, if I understand O. Palmer Robertson correctly, he makes the argument that the land promises repeated in the prophets will be ultimately fulfilled with the new heavens and new Earth. Rather than being "anti-climatic," it's the ultimate fulfillment!

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, but that is not what God promised in the covenant oath!  I might get the planet earth for myself, but I have no biblical warrant for claiming so.  Besides, the locus of biblical theology is earth not heaven.  Even heaven comes to earth if one believes what Revelation 21 says.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

J. Baillet's picture

Rom 4:13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 

Heb 11:8-10 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 

Heb 11:13-16 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

ESV (boldface added).


Larry's picture


So, if I understand O. Palmer Robertson correctly, he makes the argument that the land promises repeated in the prophets will be ultimately fulfilled with the new heavens and new Earth. Rather than being "anti-climatic," it's the ultimate fulfillment!

I think you do understand Robertson correctly. But the promise of the prophets and the question of the apostles is one of restoration. Which leads to the question, how can you be "restored" to something you never had to begin with and in fact something which never existed (i.e, the new heavens and the new earth)?

Paul Henebury's picture

To J. Baillet:

By simply quoting (with emphasis added) a few NT texts I presume you are claiming a direct correlation between those passages and the land promise to Abraham?

If I might turn to your Hebrews proof-texts first, I think you will find that Genesis 15:13-16 addresses those texts clearly enough.  As I say elsewhere,

"Thirdly, God reveals to Abram that he in fact will not himself live to inherit the land, but that he will die after living well into old age. In the fourth place, the covenant expressly joins Abram’s descendants together with the land that Abram has been brought into, but only after they have been absent from it for four hundred years." - God Chooses One Man (Pt.2)

So Abraham was well aware that to look to possess the land himself was futile, therefore he "looked to a city whose Builder and Maker was God".  This in no way eviscerates the covenant oath God took in Genesis 15.

Now if we look at Romans 4:13 your reasoning depends upon reading "world" (kosmos) as "planet earth" or "all the lands of the earth."  If such was Paul's meaning then we could go with the amendments to Genesis 15 (although not without some difficulty regarding continuity).  But this is not necessary because the Apostle does not have the land promise in mind in Romans 4.  The context is justification to salvation, not Israel's land grant.  Even John Murray (Romans 141-142) recognizes this.  A more recent commentator writes that, 

" speaking about God's promise, he [Paul] does not include any reference to the territorial aspect of the promise given to Abraham and to his descendants." - R. N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC, 510.

One of my main points in this series is to try to show the importance of God's covenants as reinforcements of His plain speech about important things.  I focus on the oath because THAT is what must be brought to fulfillment.  The Abrahamic covenant contains several promises: 1. that Sarah would give him an heir; 2. the through him his descendants would become numerous; 3. that the land detailed in Gen. 15:18-21 would be given to them; and that through Abraham the peoples of the earth would be blessed.  It is this last promise which Paul is referring to in Romans and Galatians.  How will they be blessed? Through having the same faith and justification as Abraham, which is why Gen. 15:6 is cited.      

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

J. Baillet's picture

For a fuller context, let me quote Romans 4:11-16 (ESV) (with emphasis added):

He [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

Does the word “world” (kosmos) in the context of Romans 4:13 mean “the peoples of the earth” who will be blessed through Abraham by being justified to salvation? Certainly, the word “world” (kosmos) is sometimes used in Scripture to mean, not each and every person in the world, but saved peoples from all nations of the earth, both Jew and Gentile. Is that what it means here? John Murray is indeed instructive. The offspring or seed of Abraham in view is the spiritual seed of Abraham from all nations of the earth. (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 141-42). “The clause, ‘that he should be heir of the world’ is explanatory of the promise given to Abraham and his seed; it tells us what the promise was.” (Id., at 142). God made a promise to Abraham and his spiritual offspring.  They shall inherit something.

The meek shall inherit … themselves? No, of course not. In testamentary law, one inherits either money (a legacy), or personal property (a bequest), or real property (a devise). In the context of the Beatitudes, the meek shall inherit the earth. Romans 4:13 teaches that Abraham and his spiritual offspring will inherit something. If the word “world” (kosmos) means the spiritual seed of Abraham, then they will inherit … themselves! That would be absurd. So, what will they inherit?

According to the Apostle Paul, Abraham and his seed (Christ) and his collective seed (those receiving justification to salvation through being united to Christ by faith) will inherit the created order, the redeemed created order. In Romans 8:16-24a, Paul says:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

T. Howard was right. This is what Abraham, Paul, and O. Palmer Robertson understod to be the ultimate fulfillment of the land promise and an integral benefit of justification to salvation--a place for God’s people to dwell with Him forever. "For the promise to Abraham and his offspring [was] that he would be heir of the world."


J. Baillet's picture

So, were two land promises made to Abraham?  One to Abraham and his physical seed that they will inherit present day Palestine sometime prior to the new heavens and new earth, and one to Abraham and his spiritual seed that they will inherit the new heavens and new earth in the age to come. An hypothesis worthy of testing.

NOTE: The spiritual seed of Abraham are real, literal people with real, literal bodies. Jesus' resurrection body was the first fruit of the ultimate destiny and fulfillment of the spiritual offspring of Abraham. His resurrection body is a tangible body capable of being felt and of eating. The new heavens and the new earth will be a real, literal place in time and space. It will be the fulfillment of Romans 8:16-24. Which would be anti-climatic? The physical fulfillment or the spiritual fulfillment? Is the spiritual fulfillment merely an exercise in "spiritualizing" that should be disdained in favor of the physical fulfillment?


Paul Henebury's picture


I thought you had let this one go; and you really should, because you are an exemplar of one who pits the NT against the OT.  You do this not because of what the NT actually says, but because of what you infer it is saying.  Before I begin please digest these two verses:

Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. - Gal. 3:15

For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath - Hebrews 6:16-17

God swears oaths.  He cannot change them. For example, there ought to be no argument that the OT ties the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the land.  Some examples:

1. Earthly Land – (Gen. 12:7, 15:7-21; 28:13; Deut. 30:1-9; Isa. 62:1-5; 63:15-17; Jer. 3:18; Joel 2:21-24; Zeph. 3:15-20; Zech. 14:8-21)

2. Peace and Prosperity – (Isa. 2:1-5; 11:1-10; 26:1-4, 12; 30:15-26; 32:15-17; 35:1-10; 55:1-14; Mic. 4:1-7; Ezek. 36:33-36; Hos. 2:14-23; Joel 3:16-21; Amos 9:11-15)

3. Israel to be the Head Nation and Jerusalem the Top City – (Deut. 26:19; 28:13; Joel 3:17; Jer. 23:5-8; Isa. 62:1-5;  Zech. 8:20-23; 14:16-21)

4. A King on David’s Throne (Psa. 89:1-4, 28-37; Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 3:14-18; Jer. 23:5; 30:8-9; 33:14-26; Ezek. 37:15-28; Zech. 12:6-9; 13:1)

It needs to be said in passing that these selected references must be read in their OT contexts if their meaning is to be ascertained.

Whatismore, these promises are covenanted by God.

Now, what you have done is to read Romans 4 and the word "world" as "physical space", i.e., a location (planet earth).  You do this, not because the Apostle says that is what he means; nor because in the context he is talking about physical space - he is talking about justification - but because you are bringing your inferences into the text.  You even infer that Murray says this even though he actually doesn't (of course, because of his eschatology, he would side with you, but he doesn't state here that the land of Gen. 15 is expanded to include the entire planet).  Longenecker on the other hand, DOES state explicitly that Paul is not speaking of the land promise so you ignore him.  You also ignore the different strands of the Abrahamic covenant that I identified in my last post.  

How then do you argue?  You argue by what I call "But if that..., then this".  You argue deductively not inductively.  The word "world" appear once in Romans 4 so we must look at what Paul is speaking about to determine what he means by it.  Your highlighting certain phrases does not solve anything other than demonstrating to me how your mind is working.  And it only does that because I know what assumptions you are reading into your highlighted texts.  To me that you are reading your conclusions into Romans 4.  

As anyone can see from Rom.4:1-5 the Apostle is thinking in terms of justification and righteousness.  Faith, not works, is the bridge from one to the other (with the insertion of Gen.15:6).  Then David is used to illustrate the point at issue (4:6-9).  Then we get a question about whether this imputed righteousness is only for the Jews (circumcision - 4:9), which is answered by the fact that Abraham was circumcised before he was circumcised (4:10).  This means that his faith justification to righteousness is not bounded by circumcision, so that those not circumcised may receive justification through faith the same way Abraham did (4:11-12).  Those not circumcised would be the rest of the peoples of the world.  So far, not a word about the physical land!  

Now comes your proof text for land=planet earth, verse 13.  

"For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith."

Notice that Paul is still on the theme of righteousness, which he will go on to argue for in the rest of the chapter.  But here you seize your opportunity to transform the covenant promises I listed above (which is off-subject for Paul) to mean the planet given to saved Gentiles (mainly) and Jews as one homogenous group (which puts you in the soup with Rom. 11 btw).  You do it by making a false dichotomy: "Do the meek inherit themselves?"  you ask.  Ah, but you are now not in Romans but in the Sermon on the Mount preached to Israelites! The "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus preached here would have been interpreted, not as the church (which was unknown to the hearers), but as the fulfillment of the land promises to Israel (compare here Matt. 10:5 & 19:28).  

I think what you are inferring is "the meek = the church, and Paul is talking about how one becomes righteous and is incorporated into the church, and he speaks about Abraham inheriting the world (which, if it is real estate, is found nowhere in the OT, and actually contradicts it!), ergo, the church (the meek) inherit the planet!  And just to prove that Paul is speaking about the planet in Romans 4 you jet off to Romans 8 where he has finished dealing with justification and is now teaching on sanctification and glorification, and you exclaim, "The new heavens and the new earth will be a real, literal place in time and space."

Well, just because Paul IS speaking about the physical creation in Rom 8 does not mean he is speaking about it in Rom 4 (btw, he is not talking about the new heavens and earth in Rom.8.  In Romans 8:19-21 it is THIS creation that is eagerly waiting; it is THIS creation that is subjected in hope, and it is THIS creation that will be "delivered from the bondage of corruption".  Once more you import your conclusion into the context).  In fact your methodology looks to me like you repair to disparate texts and contexts, which you import into Rom.4, which is not read in context, and with this assemblage of proof-texts you produce your desired conclusion.  

So getting back Romans 4:13, what is the promise?  It is the promise of righteousness to salvation (Rom.4:16,18)!  Rom. 4:17 quotes from Gen. 17:5, "I have made you the father of many nations" (also v.18), to show what "world" means in verse 13.  It means elect peoples, not the land.  The land is still promised to Israel in Gen. 17:8!    

At the close of your last comment you ask whether "the spiritual fulfillment" which you take (though misidentify), is not better than the "physical fulfillment", by which I think you mean what God covenanted to Israel all through the OT.  Again, you create a problem that doesn't exist.  What God gives is best, whether you or I agree or not.  Our job is to pay attention to what God says - especially when He swears an oath to do it.

I do not expect any of this to make a dent.  That is because we have very different approaches to the text of Scripture.  You reinterpret the OT with your interpretation of the NT, just like you have done here.  These approaches are discussed in my Rules of Affinity.           

(NB.  If you want to respond, perhaps you could do it in the Pt.3 thread).   



Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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